It’s easy to get entranced by the “movie magic” we see up on the big screen. But the reality is that magic is the combination of dozens of filmmaking techniques working in unison to create every frame that mesmerizes us.
If you’re looking to get into the movie industry or want to make your own films, you don’t need to be an expert in all of these filmmaking techniques—there are professionals and entire departments dedicated to each of them. However, it’s extremely helpful to have a working knowledge of these essentials so you know what goes into producing an epic film.
What Are Filmmaking Techniques?
Filmmaking techniques are the tools that filmmakers use to create their final product. Throughout the history of film, these techniques have evolved not just with technological advancements but also with the development of filmmaking as an expressive art form. Today, there is a “language of film” that viewers come to expect when they sit down in the theater.
Ultimately, all of these filmmaking techniques and cinematic effects should serve the story of the film and the characters who reside in it.
1. Camera Lighting
The lights on a film set are often used to replicate the natural light of a scene’s environment. Some films, like Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon, use only natural light from the sun, candles, or lamps. Most Hollywood films have lights off-screen that direct the viewer’s eye and add to the genre of the film.
While many camera lighting setups want to provide a natural look to a film or create neutral lighting like in documentary talking heads, there are other cinematic lighting effects that enhance a character’s inner thoughts and feelings. Deep shadows may represent personal turmoil. Overly bright lights can represent feelings of ecstasy or euphoria.
Lighting can even look completely artificial and add to the overall feel of a film—Dario Argento’s Suspiria is a fantastic use of colored lights that emphasize the fairy-tale surrealism of the film.
2. Film Editing
Film editing is the process of taking raw footage shot on set and assembling it into the final film. In the post-production world, it’s one of the most important steps.
Editing dictates the pace of a scene. If a scene is frenetic, the editing can reflect that with a series of quick cuts. If a scene is particularly tense, long takes punctuated by one quick edit can be surprising and cut that tension.
Editing also enhances a film’s genre. The meaty argument scene in A Marriage Story chooses to show the reaction of each actor to the other’s hurtful barbs, increasing the emotional resonance of the moment. The masterful editing of Jackie Chan’s fight scenes, like this one from Legend of the Drunken Master, show each hit to really amp up the action and comedy often found in his fights.
3. Camera Movement
From tracking to tilting and everything in between, camera movement helps to visually tell the story by manipulating what’s on screen. These movements are extremely powerful when it comes to evoking a certain emotion.
The impressive dolly shot in Gone With the Wind emphasizes the tragic loss of life and the desperation of Scarlett O’Hara. The slow zoom on Michael Corleone’s face in The Godfather highlights his internal struggles with committing the assassinations of Sollozzo and McCluskey.
Even within a single genre, there are different camera movements used to evoke the same feeling. For example, the horror in Cloverfield is represented through the chaotic motion of the hand-held camera, whereas the horror in the opening of Halloween comes from the single-take Steadicam shot that puts the viewer in the POV of a cold, calculated killer.
4. Visual Effects
Visual effects have evolved into a billion-dollar industry—it’s highly unlikely you’ll see any blockbuster Hollywood film without them. Visual effects are the elements added to a film in post production—CGI, animation, compositing, and many other cinematic effects. There’s usually a distinction between visual effects and special effects in that the latter involves practical effects like models and pyrotechnics on the set.
Visual effects allow for entirely new kinds of stories to be told in films—one only has to remember the Avatar craze to know the effect they can have on viewers. Combining visual and practical effects successfully leads to monumental achievements like Mad Max: Fury Road. But visual effects can also be used for subtle yet significant changes like the de-aging effects in The Irishman.
5. Film Blocking
Blocking is the placement of actors in a scene and how they move around. It works a lot like choreography—the director creates movement on the screen that is dynamic and that engages the viewer to watch. Doing this kind of planning not only helps with the artistic elements of the film, it can also save a lot of time and money.
Speaking of choreography, you find a lot of intricate blocking in musicals, like this scene from West Side Story. But you don’t need a ton of movement to create interesting blocking. In Akira Kurosawa’s High and Low and Sidney Lumet’s 12 Angry Men, there are so many brilliant examples of film blocking that boil down to a group of people just sitting in a room.
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6. Film Sound
At one point in history, film sound was the most shocking and revolutionary development in the art form. While it has become entirely commonplace today, the importance of sound in film cannot be disregarded.
Film sound can be broken into two categories: diegetic and non-diegetic. Diegetic sound is any sound that would happen naturally in the scene: people talking, a glass breaking, the clopping of horse hooves. Non-diegetic sound is any sound that the characters cannot hear but the audience can, like a movie score or voiceover narration. Typically, these are used to heighten emotional tension in scenes.
When Mr. Blonde dances to “Stuck in the Middle With You” in Reservoir Dogs, that’s diegetic sound. “Born to Be Wild” playing over the opening credits of Easy Rider, on the other hand, is an example of non-diegetic sound.
7. Sound Effects
Sound effects in film are generally created in the post production phase and help enhance the sounds taking place on the screen. While most on-set recording is focused on capturing dialogue, all other sounds are mixed and added later.
Foley artists are usually responsible for creating sounds like footsteps, the rustling of clothes, and other incidental sounds. Slammed doors or background nature sounds can be pulled from sound effects libraries. And some sounds have to be created out of thin air. No one knows what a T-Rex sounded like, but the sound designers who worked on Jurassic Park did a pretty effective stab at it.
8. Shot Composition
Shot composition goes a step beyond blocking and considers all of the elements that appear in a frame to create a certain effect. It not only involves where the actors are in relationship to one another but also where they are in relationship to different elements of their environment.
In Citizen Kane, Orson Welles is constantly using depth of field to provide full, engrossing action up close and far away at the same time. The way these different fields interact with one another is a fascinating shot composition.
9. Film Tone
Film tone is the overall effect a film has on its viewers, created through a combination of all other cinematic techniques. The tone of a film is usually in direct correlation with the type of story it is telling.
Film noir like Double Indemnity and Kiss Me Deadly feature nefarious criminals and tough-as-nails detectives while visually existing in the shadows and leaning on dramatic scores. Horror movies of the ’60s and ’70s like Night of the Living Dead and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre tell bleak stories of human depravity and, as such, they look grimy, dirty, sweaty.
If you execute all the filmmaking techniques, you will wind up with a film tone that perfectly matches the story you are telling.
10. Shot Framing
Similar to shot composition, shot framing is a more technical look at the image in a frame.
One of the basic rules of framing is called The Rule of Thirds. If you imagine your frame divided into three horizontal sections and three vertical sections, you want to arrange your subjects along those lines, naturally drawing the audience’s attention. And you can do this on different planes in your frame, creating a large depth of field.
Another way to approach shot composition is through symmetry—this usually centers on a single subject and has similar elements on each side. Nearly every second of The Grand Budapest Hotel involves symmetry of some kind—in fact, all of Wes Anderson’s films do.
Lights, Camera, Action!
Once it’s time for you to make your own films, keep these cinematic techniques in mind. Getting creative with a few of them will make your project stand out and, ultimately, help you grow as a filmmaker.
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